Whether or not it was the race which finished off Valtteri Bottas’ chances of getting another contract extension with Mercedes, the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix cannot have counted in his favour.
Having picked up damage on the opening lap of the race, he suffered a series of spins on the rain-soaked track. He limped in 14th, a lap plus 50 seconds behind his team mate. On the day Lewis Hamilton put a lock on his seventh world championship, the contrast between the pair had never looked greater.
On F1’s return to Turkey, Bottas looked like a completely different driver. He ensured he will not end his final season at Mercedes win-less with a classy drive to victory, which limited the damage Max Verstappen did to his team mate’s championship hopes.
‘Right’ strategy pays off for top three
In conditions not dissimilar to last year’s race, the track was wet at the start, and took a long time to dry out. Indeed, it never really did. The key difference was the passage of time had allowed the asphalt to mature, and it had been extensively cleaned, so the shocking lack of grip drivers encountered last year was much improved.
Nonetheless, as the drivers pulled away from the grid most were beginning stints of well over 30 laps on their intermediate tyres. One of them reached the chequered flag without fitting fresh rubber, a feat unheard of in recent years.
Recognising this was how the race would play out, the drivers lapped well within their cars’ capabilities at first. “It’s not difficult because you’re just driving under the tyre,” explained Verstappen, who held his second place behind Bottas at the start. “You have grip, you just decide not to use it.”
This wouldn’t last. “It was a nice feeling because if you compare to the end of the first stint, you don’t have the grip anymore and you are really hanging onto the tyre because also the rear tyres are gone.”
As the race passed half-distance, the increasingly worn intermediates began to cry enough. The track still didn’t seem dry enough for slicks, however.
Complicating matters, the soft tyre, which would ordinarily be the obvious alternative to intermediates in these circumstances, had proved fragile in practice. Anyone fitting it at this point could therefore find themselves needing to pit again before the end of the race, a poor reward for the gamble of taking fresh rubber.
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In the end, only one driver risked slicks – Sebastian Vettel – and he immediately realised fitting mediums was a mistake. The Aston Martin driver was back in for intermediates on lap 37 after a single tour of Istanbul Park, which was enough to put everyone off trying the same over the remaining 21 laps.
A handful of midfielders dabbled with pitting for new intermediates. Daniel Ricciardo, who made little progress from the back of the grid with his new engine, came in on lap 21. Fernando Alonso, who had been knocked into a spin by Pierre Gasly at the start and then clattered into Mick Schumacher on the next lap, pitted on lap 30, where he served his five-second time penalty for the latter incident.
But it wasn’t until Lando Norris came in on lap 34 that the majority of runners decided it was time to stop waiting for the track to dry enough for slicks and instead take a new set of intermediates to run to the end. In the cool conditions, this meant suffering a period of heavy graining during which time the lap times were poorer than they had been prior to pitting.
For Bottas, the call was straightforward. By lap 34 he was 4.6 seconds up the road from Verstappen. This grew by a second a lap over the next two tours: Verstappen’s tyres had gone. The Red Bull driver came in, and Mercedes simply covered him by bringing Bottas in on the next lap.
“I didn’t consider going through the whole race with one set,” he explained, “because at some point I started to feel a bit of vibration from the tyres and they were like slicks and eventually you would get the canvas. So I always had it in my mind that we would be stopping at some point.”
This remarkably promoted Charles Leclerc into the lead. The Ferrari driver had kept pace with Verstappen throughout the opening stint, to his surprise.
But once Bottas was through the graining phase, he easily caught and passed the Ferrari. “When I was gaining to Charles, he was still on his first set of tyres,” he explained. “He was really quick on the parts that were a bit drier and I was quicker on the parts that were a bit wetter because I had fresh tyres.
“Just when I was closing onto him my tyres started to grain quite a bit, but I was still catching him obviously. Then my tyres grained to the point that they were slicks again and then they were fine. There was a bit of a pace difference and he had a couple of lock-ups and when I got him he had a bit of a snap in the last corner and that helped.”
Ferrari decided not to push their luck all the way to the end of the race. They brought Leclerc in on lap 48, with 10 to go. He came out of the pits ahead of the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez, but his second set of intermediates were already through their graining phase and he easily passed.
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That put Perez third behind his team mate, but neither of them had anything for Bottas. Verstappen’s afternoon was complicated by a couple of minor technical problems. He reported a gear change problem on the radio but confirmed afterwards “it was not the gear shift.”
“There was a word next to the number where I can see the gears which was not disappearing, so I had to change one rotary and it was fine,” her explained. “So it was not performance limited.”
He also reported the steering was gradually coming out of alignment. “The steering was a bit left-hand-down, but also of course the tyres are wearing so you get a bit of an uneven platform. I could feel this already from the start. But, again, this is not performance limiting – but it’s better to say it than say nothing.”
Bottas’ second set of intermediates came in beautifully over the final lap, allowing him to claim the bonus point for fastest lap on the final tour. It must have left his team mate wondering what he could have done with that kind of performance over the final laps.
Hamilton picks the wrong gamble
After the race Hamilton indicated Mercedes had begun the afternoon believing it was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the track would dry out. “We were having a debate at the beginning of the race,” he said. “Some members of the team thought it would dry in 10 laps. I thought maybe lap 30.”
It didn’t turn out that way. “I remember getting to lap 30 and it still was very slippery and greasy. I don’t know why. It’s very, very unusual circuit.”
He made a sure-footed start in treacherous conditions. The superior grip on the racing line side of the track allowed him to pull away from Vettel, and he gained another place from Alonso who was pointing the wrong way at turn one.
Dealing with eighth-placed Yuki Tsunoda, who admitted after the race he wants Verstappen to win the championship for Honda and was trying to hold Hamilton up as long as he could, kept him at bay for eight laps.
Eventually Hamilton tracked a line around the outside of the AlphaTauri at turn three and claimed the inside for turn four – a clean version of the very move Alonso had unsuccessfully attempted on Schumacher. This proved his favourite spot for passes.
That said, Lance Stroll and Norris in their Mercedes customer cars made life noticeably less difficult for Hamilton. “He was a lot quicker and I didn’t want to waste my time defending him,” said Stroll. “He was going to finish in front of me at the end of the race anyway.”
Gasly also adopted a more pragmatic view than his team mate when Hamilton appeared in his mirrors, and the Mercedes was swiftly by into fifth. Gasly went on to take sixth while his team mate, having over-taxed his tyres trying to repel the Mercedes, spun and fell to 14th.
Hamilton reeled off a series of fastest laps, then moderated his pace as he drew within range of Perez, by far his most challenging adversary yet. The pair demonstrated superb driving skills when Hamilton made a bid for fourth place on lap 33.
Having tried go around the outside of Perez at turn 12, Hamilton claimed the inside for the next corner and forced the Red Bull wide, as was his right. Perez cheekily dodged through the pit lane exit, cutting back across the apron to grab the inside line for turn 14. He left Hamilton room at the exit of the corner yet still got off the turn well enough to run side-by-side with the Mercedes down the straight and finally reclaiming his position at turn one.
“It was pretty intense at that point,” said Perez, “because Lewis really got me at the worst time of my race today. I was struggling so much with my tyres at that point.
“That first stint was so difficult for me, especially towards the end and Lewis was pretty fast. I think at the time he was the fastest car on track, so to hold him back at that point was pretty challenging. We had a good fight. I had to even avoid the pit bollard on pit entry, but it was a good fight overall, and managed to stay ahead.”
Crucially, this entire exchange cost the pair around five seconds. That meant Verstappen had enough of a margin to be able to make a pit stop and come out ahead of Hamilton. Red Bull immediately pounced on the opportunity.
The Mercedes driver was dismayed to see his championship rival emerge from the pits two seconds up the road. “How’s he come out ahead?” he asked race engineering Peter Bonnington. “We dropped a chunk of time just battling with Perez,” Hamilton was told.
Hamilton urged his team to ensure they brought him in before Perez, but by then it was no longer an option: the Red Bull came in on the lap after his team mate. It wasn’t until lap 41, three laps later, that Mercedes called Hamilton in, telling him “new inter is the way to go”. But Hamilton resisted the call.
Over the laps that followed driver and team went back and forth over the decision. Having missed the chance to pit before either of the Red Bulls, Hamilton was now eyeing the chance to avoid coming in until the track became dry enough for slicks. But that point never arrived, a points which eventually dawned on Mercedes. Finally they summoned him in on lap 51, after Hamilton had lost three seconds to his team mate on the previous tour, and he complied.
Hamilton returned to the track in fifth. Ahead, Bottas led the Red Bull pair home while Leclerc briefly saw Hamilton loom large in his mirrors, then fade as the graining set in.
Gasly had served a five-second penalty for his tangle with Alonso, without which he might have jumped Hamilton too at the end. He followed the Mercedes home with Norris not far behind.
Carlos Sainz Jnr gave good value to the spectators, performing a string of passes on his way from the back row of the grid to eighth place. He passed Ocon with 13 laps to go, yet finished 50 seconds ahead of the non-stopping Alpine, Stroll between them.
Nonetheless Ocon clung onto the final point despite Antonio Giovinazzi closing on the final lap. He passed the struggling Ricciardo on the penultimate tour, started the last lap five seconds behind Ocon, yet chased him across the line.
Bottas on his own at the end
Hamilton initially fumed on the radio as he spent the next laps battling the graining phase on his tyres. “If I had stayed out, you don’t know if I would have held position,” he said afterwards. “But I am a risk taker, so I would have wanted to take that risk.”
Only one driver avoided pitting entirely: Esteban Ocon, who finished a lap down, certain he would have got a puncture if he’d done one more lap. He also lost 22 seconds compared to his team mate over the final eight laps, all of which suggests Mercedes spared Hamilton a worse fate by eventually bringing him in.
But at a track where the Mercedes had been particularly competitive, Hamilton had missed a chance to attack in the final phase of the race. Bottas, clearly lapping well within himself at times, put 10 seconds on Verstappen in the final stint.
“To some people it could have looked easy but it’s far from that in these conditions,” he explained. “You can’t do any mistakes and it’s quite easy to do mistakes in the conditions and when it’s drying, when there is only one dry line.”
After his joyless Sunday at the track last year, Bottas ensured Mercedes’ championship rivals never got a look in, and took the 10th win of his career in style. “In terms of my race I had probably the worst race of my career here last year and now one of the best.”